Children and Secondhand Stress
If I had to name a besetting sin right now it would be impatience, especially with my kids. I don’t think this is a constant problem, but it is recurring. I love my kids dearly and play with them and do special things with them and try to teach them the Bible and discipline them when they disobey. But I can also be impatient. And that’s a sin. I needlessly exasperate them at times. And that’s a sin too.
So I took note of these paragraphs from Bryan Caplan who has written a sometimes-right-on, sometimes-head-scratching, non-Christian, pro-big family book on parenting:
Most parents worry about the dangers of secondhand smoke. But few consider the dangers of secondhand stress. If you make yourself miserable to do a special favor for your child, he might enjoy it. But if he senses your negative feelings, he might come to share them.
Secondhand stress is one of kids’ leading grievances. In the Ask the Children survey, researched Ellen Galinsky interviewed over 1,000 kids in grades three to twelve and asked parents to guess how kids would respond. One key question: “If you were granted one wish to change the way your mother’s/father’s work affects your life, what would that wish be?” Kids answers were striking. They rarely wished for extra face time with their parents. They were much more likely to wish their parents would be less tired and stressed. The parents were simply out of touch. Virtually no one guessed that kids would use their one wish to give their parents a better attitude.
Galinsky also asked kids to grade their parents’ performance on a dozen dimensions. Overall, parents did pretty well. Moms had an overall GPA of 3.14, versus 2.98 for dads. A majority of moms and dads got As for “appreciating me for who I am,” “making me feel important and loved,” and “being able to attend important events in my life.” Anger management was parents’ Achilles’ heel. More than 40 percent of kids gave their moms and dads a C, D, or F for “controlling his/her temper when I do something that makes him/her angry”—the very worst marks on their report card. (Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids: Why Being a Great Parent is Less Work and More Fun, 32-33)
I’m never quite sure how much stock to put in studies like this, but Galinsky’s study certainly rings true. As parents we love our kids to the moon. We love to plan special events and give them special treats. We never want to miss a soccer game or recital. Way to go us! But we are easily frustrated and prone to anger. The basic point of Caplan’s book is that parents make parenting too hard by trying to do too much, getting too worked up about little things, and thinking they have almost sovereign control over their children’s future. I certainly don’t agree with all his suggestions and findings, but Caplan is right about this: it would be better for us and for our kids if we made fewer outings, g0t involved in fewer activities, took more breaks away from the kids, did whatever we could to get more help around the house, and make parental sanity a higher priority.
Beware the secondhand stress. If mommy (or daddy) ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy. Or as God put it, “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil” (Eph. 4:26-27).